Dazed England have to settle for a draw

 

ENGLAND visit Victoria Falls today and it will be a wonder if no one throws themselves off the edge. Never has a side come so close to winning a test match without actually achieving it, but mention that by way of consolation and the response is one of numbed and dazed" expressions.

"We murdered 'em, we flipping murdered 'em," repeated David Lloyd, England's team manager, and he knew that changed nothing. For the first time in test cricket, the score book entry read: "Match drawn with scores level." England, boldly chasing 205 for victory in 37 overs, mentally won the match 1,000 times but finished deeply frustrated on 204-5.

Zimbabwe might be test novices, but never again will they be termed test innocents. The negative bowling tactics they shamelessly employed during the final hour, as they persistently bowled well wide of the stumps without penalty, were legitimate enough but they will have deeply offended all those who extol the spirit of the game.

One ball, in particular, sticks in the craw. Umpire Ian Robinson had an embarrassing match and his decision to judge the fourth ball of the final over as acceptable ranks as one of the most outrageous abdications of responsibility in test history.

Heath Streak fired it so wide outside Nick Knight's off stump that the left-hander, named man of the match for an unbeaten 96 from 118 balls, could not have reached it with an extension.

Both sides were able to celebrate an equal share of a special occasion. England, arguably, as the only possible victors, came even closer to winning yesterday but there was nob similar sense of excitement, just an excruciating recognition that success had eluded them.

Just 13 were needed from Streak's, final over, and when Knight thrashed his third ball over deep square for six, England were on the verge of a momentous victory.

But the next ball passed by out of reach, and Knight drove the fifth to long off for two runs. With three required from the final ball, Knight lashed Streak to the cover boundary.

"I middled it and thought it had a chance," he said, but Stuart Carlisle intercepted and his throw ran out Darren Gough as, like a man splashing through thigh-deep waves, he, pursued a hopeless third.

This was not the classiest test ever played - the seam bowling on both sides was too mediocre for that - but the climax on this intimate Queen's Sports Club ground was compelling.

For Geoffrey Boycott to complain on BBC Radio that it was not proper test cricket, that the bowling was too easy, that England were winning at a canter, not only proved to be inaccurate, but it over-emphasised quality at the expense of sensation.

England rued the two hours lost to rain on the second day. Others, less fairly, concentrated on the time lost on the fourth afternoon when John Crawley, protecting the tail, became engaged in a prolonged tactical contest to keep the strike.

More persuasively, England simply did not take Zimbabwe's last five wickets quickly enough yesterday. Zimbabwe, 107-5 overnight, led, by 77, and looked right for England's spinners but they resisted until half an hour before tea and were within minutes of making a draw inevitable.

The night watchman, Bryan Strang, was soon dismissed as he tried to strike Phil Tufnell down the ground, but adventurous half centuries from A.J. Waller and J Whittall carried the fight impressively. Lloyd's irksome reference to "getting 15 of them out" was that of a man who felt that England's spinners had been refused several valid claims for bat and pad catches.

Crawley's short leg catch off Robert Croft looked particularly persuasive, but Paul Strang added only another single before falling to the same combination. England, who appealed indiscriminately, and in ant impassioned manner that on Saturday had brought a reprimand from the match referee, Hanumant Singh, should consider whether such an approach is counter-productive.

Waller was eventually removed bye Gough's lifter, although his subsequent new ball spell was so unimpressive that it lasted only one over. Four wickets for Tufnell included Whittall, caught by the diving Robert Croft at extra cover. England's required rate of 5.54 questioned Michael Atherton's presence at the top of the order, and the captain soon dragged Henry Olonga onto his stumps as he tried to cut.

That introduced a standard 137 in 26 overs between Knight and Alec Stewart that, until its closing moments, promised victory. Knight's willingness to risk the unorthodox provided initial impetus, while Steward bossed and bristled like an army captain, never more so than with a straight six against Paul Strang.

Zimbabwe's immediate retreat into deep-set fields played into England's hands - Strang's leg spin, in particular, would have benefitted from the presence of close catches - and with 87 needed from the last 15 overs, a rare overseas win looked inevitable.

Knight, though, was slowed, initially by Grant Flower's leg stump attack latterly by Zimbabwe's negativity. Stewart, after reaching 73 in 76 balls, skied Strang to Allister, Campbell, and N Hussain departed without scoring as he slapped the leg spinner to cover, second ball. Whittall, riskily introduced with four overs remaining, caused John Crawley to slice to deep cover; Thorpe's legside hit lobbed into the offside; England's chance had slipped away.